When people praise filmmakers, they're often referring to those with a distinct, easily identifiable style: Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson, Christopher Nolan, etc. There's something equally impressive, if not more so, about filmmakers who adapt their style to each individual project. James Mangold is a perfect example. You wouldn't necessarily know a movie was his if you didn't see his name on it. Logan is different from Walk the Line, which is different from 3:10 to Yuma, which is different from Girl, Interrupted. You get the picture. His latest, Ford v Ferrari, is different from all of them. The thing that ties these works together is the quality level Mangold brings.
This true story takes place in the mid-'60s. Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) watches as his family business struggles. Vice President Lee Iaccocca (Jon Bernthal) suggests getting one of the Ford Motor Company's cars into the prestigious 24 Hours of Le Mans race. Winning that, he argues, would equate the Ford name with victory. Ford is intrigued and attempts to buy Ferrari, in order to take advantage of their expertise in building racing vehicles. When owner Enzo Ferrari screws him, he vows revenge.
Enter Caroll Shelby (Matt Damon), a former racer who once won Le Mans. Ford recruits him to develop a car that can be competitive with anything Ferrari might enter into the race. Shelby has lots of ideas, including having his pal Ken Miles (Christian Bale) be the driver. The problem is that Miles has developed a bad reputation for being a hothead and a loose cannon. Ford v Ferrari follows these two men as they attempt to do what they've been tasked with – win the race and humiliate their boss's rival – amid corporate pressures and interpersonal dilemmas.
The movie works even if you don't care about the subject matter because the story represents something more universal. Ford and his executives understand cars; Shelby and Miles understand racing them. Those two things are not equal. A Ford executive, Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas), continually undermines what they're trying to do. He's concerned about overall corporate image and what will best reflect on the Ford brand. Shelby and Miles are focusing on a very specific goal. Achieving that goal often clashes with the company's need to consider multiple goals. The theme of how art and commerce collide is present throughout the story in an engrossing way.
Racing sequences, meanwhile, are beautifully accomplished. Mangold and Oscar-nominated cinematographer Phedon Papamichael convey a sense of the high speeds these cars race at. In fact, their cameras often race right alongside (or past) the autos themselves. Combined with exemplary sound design, Ford v Ferrari gives you an adrenaline jolt, even though you aren't moving at 200 MPH like Miles is.
As terrific as it is in that area, the movie remains appropriately very character-driven. Damon adds a mischievous twist to the nice-guy persona he's known for. Shelby is not only willing to rock the boat, he kind of enjoys doing it. That quality leads to some humorous moments in the last act, when he engages in a few bits of passive-aggressiveness toward not only the Ford execs but also the Ferrari team. Bale is his equal, once again disappearing completely into character. The actor avoids temperamental personality cliches, instead making Miles' brazenness more playful than anything.
Even at two-and-a-half hours, Ford v Ferrari never drags. The story is rich and the acting is stellar across the board. And if you don't know how the '66 Le Mans race ended, prepare for a mind-blower. James Mangold gets the tone and feel just right, once again proving to be one of the most gifted and least ostentatious filmmakers around.
out of four
Ford v Ferrari is rated PG-13 for some language and peril. The running time is 2 hours and 32 minutes.